The Heart of Jesus

The Heart of Jesus

Fr. Catalino G. Arévalo, SJ

The Paschal Mystery is the ultimate foundation of the “devotion” to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thus, in recent years, there is a move to call it, not so much a “devotion” to the Heart of Jesus, but a “spirituality”. A devotion is usually understood as a set of practices of piety. A spirituality is understood as something deeper: it is a fundamental orientation of mind, heart and soul, springing from basic realities of our faith, from certain truths which express these realities, often expressed in certain symbols. All this is embodied in a certain response of mind, heart and spirit. This response is (in this case) the deepest surrender in faith of freedom, love and life which we are capable of. This deepest surrender is expressed in total self-giving, expressed often enough in a “consecration” of self.

Such a surrender of freedom, love and self is to God (as we have always been taught) what in the Christian, specially the Catholic tradition, has been called “sacrifice”.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTIANITY, and in other writings, stresses very strongly that the Christian understanding of “sacrifice” is something wholly new. It is not the same as what we might call the ordinary (or the “pagan”, if you will) understanding of sacrifice. The Christian understanding of sacrifice is rooted in the one, wholly new, reality which is the sacrifice of Jesus. Its meaning comes entirely from Jesus’ Paschal Mystery.

We as Christians know we cannot give anything to God which is not already his. Thus, the Christian notion of sacrifice has moved away from the offering of material gifts (holocausts, animal sacrifices, etc.) more and more to the inner dispositions of obedience and love. St. Thomas Aquinas says, regarding the self-offering of Jesus: that he gave his life “ex obedientia et caritate”. These inner dispositions become the inner content (or the “heart”) of all our deeds, internal dispositions embodying themselves in external deeds, in behavior, in life.

We said above: the only thing we can truly give to God is the surrender of our freedom, our love, our deepest self and life. (Mary’s Fiat [Luke 1, 38]; Jesus’ “I have come to do your will” [Hebrews; 10, 5-7]. “Not my will but thine by done” [Luke 22, 42] in the Gospel). Why can we give that? Doesn’t God also “own” that already? Answer: we can truly give God that only thing, because he has given us the gift of our freedom, as precisely that only thing which – because of him – is truly ours, unchangeably ours. This was/is his gift to us.

So, Joseph Ratzinger says over and over again: “The only genuine Christian sacrifice is the total opening up of ourselves, the total self-giving of ourselves, of our freedom, love and total self/life – to God.” It is this opening up of self wholly to God and his will which is the Christian notion of sacrifice, the genuine Christian notion of offering/oblation, after the example of and by participation in, the total self-giving of Jesus to his Father in the Paschal Mystery.

This total self-giving was/is the “fundamental attitude”, the fundamental orientation of freedom and love in the deepest self of Jesus, – his heart –, from the first moment of his conception to this very moment when he is in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, ever making intercession for us now (Letter to the Hebrews 7, 20-25; 8, 1ff.)

The Gospel “story section” where this is most vividly, most powerfully portrayed is in the story of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection and ascension, – in what we call the Paschal Mystery, the event the Church celebrates each year in the Paschal Triduum. (Holy Week and Easter).

Now, what is meant when we speak of the INNER HEART OF JESUS?

Sacred heart by harvey

The deepest, most total permanent orientation his total self, his total life, which is THE TOTAL FREE AND LOVING GIFT OF HIMSELF – AS MAN, OFFERED “WITHIN” THE TOTAL FREE AND LOVING GIFT OF THE SON TO GOD HIS FATHER.

The “human self-giving” is thus wholly taken up in the self-giving (if that is the right word) of God-the-Son in the intra-Trinitarian life. The total self-giving of Jesus to the Father takes up, in Jesus’ life, the total self-giving of himself to us (men and women) as “taken up” into his self-giving to his Father as the Son. “In this does the Father love me: that I lay down my life, to take it up again. No one takes it from me. Freely I lay down my life, freely I take it up again. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. This is the charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10, 17-18)

For whom, in benefit of whom, for whose sake does Jesus lay down his life? For us, for our sakes, for our benefit. Daily at Mass we repeat his words: “This is my body, which is broken for you.” “This is the cup of my blood, which is poured out for all, for the forgiveness of sins.”

What do many theologians today (e.g. Cardinal Ratzinger) mean by the HEART OF JESUS and the fundamental orientation (movement) of the HEART OF JESUS? It is this basic disposition, this basic self-gift, this deepest surrender of Jesus’ freedom, love and life which we see most dramatically on the Cross, and which (so the Letter to the Hebrews tells us) is what is still going on, now through history, at this very moment, as “Jesus stands at the right hand of the Father, ever making intercession for us.” The Paschal Mystery is not over. The reality of sacrifice/oblation of Jesus did not end on the Cross! It is going on now, in heaven.

What then is the “devotion” to Heart of Jesus? It is our poor human attempt to enter into the Heart of Jesus – or better, the Heart of Jesus “at the right hand of the Father,” ever interceding for us throughout history and into eternity, takes up our worship and love into his, takes our hearts and joins them to his, And so we – our hearts – “enter into” his Heart.

We try to enter within that Heart of Jesus. We try to have our hearts totally opened up to His Heart. We try to make every thought, word and deed of ours wholly opened up to and penetrated by, the inner dispositions, the inner power, the inner freedom and love of the now living Heart of Jesus. We try to make all our lives a new living-out of Christ Jesus’ self-gift, the ‘Christ-sacrifice’.

This is the meaning of the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus.

Image by Sch. Harvey Mateo, SJ

Image by Sch. Harvey Mateo, SJ

The explicit moment when this becomes most true and most powerfully real in our lives is at the sacrifice of the Mass. Pope Benedict XVI is very firm in his stand that the Mass is not just a meal but a true sacrifice! At the Eucharistic Prayer we try to enter within the Heart of Christ, we try to “plug in” into his heart. Or, it is better to say: “Jesus himself takes us up into his heart.” It is above all at communion (this is the deeper meaning of the “meal”!) Jesus joins us to himself, and we are made one in the truest, deepest possible way which God himself has ‘created’ for us. St. Augustine says that Jesus tells us: “When you eat my flesh, I am not changed into you, but you are changed into me.” So St. Paul can say, “I live, no longer is it I who lives, but Christ lives in me.” Everything thus becomes IN HIM, WITH HIM, THROUGH HIM. (Thus, this inner participation in the Eucharist is the fullest action in our spirituality the Heart of Jesus.)

Then our whole moral and spiritual life tries to live out, to express, this insertion of our hearts into his heart, this transformation of our hearts into his heart. Everything is IN CHRISTO, PER CHRISTUM, CUM CHRISTO. That is, IN THE HEART OF JESUS, WITH THE HEART OF JESUS, THROUGH THE HEART OF JESUS.

After Vatican II where the Paschal Mystery was clearly taught to be the center of our Christian worship and life, we see that the “devotion to Heart of Jesus” – understood as the spirituality of the Paschal Mystery in the Church’s life and worship, as it is concretely lived out in our own lives – is not peripheral or even really “optional”. It is the spirituality of Christian worship and life as it is realized and lived out in the life of individual Christians. (Cf. GOD IS NEAR US. THE EUCHARIST AT THE HEART OF LIFE and the other writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001.)

After Pius XII’s “Haurietis Aquas” (May 1956), the image most fittingly linked with the devotion or spirituality of the Heart of Jesus is that of the pierced side of Christ on the cross, (John 19): the soldier stabs Jesus’ side with the lance, rather than breaking his bones to assure his death (John 19, 34). “At once there was a flow of blood and water.” (John 19, 35) Eyewitnesses are there who see this; their evidence is to be trusted. The water symbolizes the gift of the Spirit (cf John 7, 37-39). All of this happens “in fulfillment of the Scripture: ‘No bone of his shall be broken.’ And another text says, ‘They shall look upon him whom they have pierced.’.” (John 19, 37)

This pierced side will be, in a moving scene in the 20th chapter in the Fourth Gospel, the ‘trigger’ for the most explicit profession of faith found in John (John 20). Jesus said to Thomas: “Here, bring your hand and put it into my side, and be no longer unbelieving, but believe.” And Thomas answers, “My Lord and my God.”

So many images of the Sacred Heart are so culture-bound, time-bound to the tastes and sentiments of their time. To go back to the scriptural image of the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, to that of his wound-marked side after his Resurrection, is to enter into the infinitely richer and deeper symbolic world of the revealed Word, so greatly liberating, for the spirit.

“They shall look upon him whom they have pierced.” (John 19, 37) As Pope Benedict XVI has written: all of our faith and worship are there, in those words. (cf. The Sabbath of History)

These words are an encapsulation of all Christian spirituality.


Originally written for the Archdiocesan Commission, Manila on the occasion of the “Year of the Two Hearts, 2009-2010”